So Steeler Nation is well aware that Pittsburgh's primary needs are almost entirely on the defensive side of the ball. With a draft that looks flush with pass-rush talent, there's little question as to which position the Steelers should target in the early rounds. But what about the middle rounds?
Last year, Pittsburgh opted to go defense in their first two draft picks, something that looks very likely to happen again this year. In the third round, they broke in the offensive side of the ball with a name that fell between the cracks of a phenomenal outing by nearly every other offensive player: Dri Archer. As a diminutive, lightning-fast player, Archer was already labeled as a "chess piece" by NFL scouts of every team. So this pick could have gone a few ways, and it just so happened that it didn't go well. This isn't to say that this is a strategy the Steelers should abandon entirely. Targeting high-ceiling, low-floor players is the classic gambling move to use in the middle rounds, which brings us to the next in line of these "could-a, would-a, should-a" players.
True, his stat line doesn't look impressive at first glance (38-396 for 3 scores in his junior season), but it doesn't have to be in order to qualify him as a player with a high ceiling. Just look at the guy. According to this article from ESPN, James is 6'7" and weighs 272 lbs. He bench presses 400 lbs. His 27 reps of 225 lbs come only 2 reps short of Tennessee Titans' OT Taylor Lewan. He deadlifts 495 lbs 12 times, claiming that is a light load. Talk about having the foundation to play at whatever weight you wish. He also reportedly runs the 40 in just around 4.6 seconds. Break out your old physics homework and let that sink in... This is a guy who is nearly the size of Taylor Lewan, and he runs a 40 time about as fast as Rob Grownkowski. Thinking about force = mass*acceleration, and its easy to be impressed with how difficult it would be for defenses to bring down a player like that running a seam route at full speed. And of course we have to mention his potential in blocking against the archnemesis, Terrell Suggs.
But enough of his size. Now it's time to look at his tape.
What kind of a catcher is he? Wide-radius? Soft hands? Body catcher?
We'll answer that in a minute.
First, the impressive catch ability. During his sophomore season in a game against Navy, Penn State lines up in a goal-line variation of the I-form, with James positioned in-line to the strong side. Like the many times Pittsburgh has successfully done this, the call is a play-action bootleg with James running a route to the right corner of the end zone. His route is admittedly sloppy and results in the safety getting good coverage on James in the back corner. With Hackenburg running out of time, James steps forward, coming toward the pass and makes a great soft-hands catch with a double toe-tap as he goes out of bounds, touchdown. This play is a bit reminiscent of Big Ben to Santonio Holmes to win the 2009 Super Bowl against Arizona, but only a bit.
Next is game speed. In a game against Purdue, Penn State lines up in a Weak I-Form, with James lined up as the fullback, just offset to the left instead of directly behind Hackenburg. Another play-action, and James sneaks out to the left with deceptive speed, leaving the linebacker about 3 yards behind when he makes a good "hands" catch. In the open, James accelerates down the sideline for 26 yards before the DB makes contact with him, but fails to bring him down as James carries the defender on his back for another 3 yards before going out of bounds. All said and done, and James has taken his team from their own 35 yard-line to within field-goal range, almost single-handed.
In a game against Wisconsin, James lines up in the slot to the left, shotgun formation. From the Wisconsin 41 yard-line, James runs a deep out route, using his size to keep the defense at arm's length in coverage. Once downfield, James turns his shoulders and shows Hackenburg his numbers. Hackenburg passes and James makes a body catch (uh oh...) at the 25 yard-line. After the catch, James turns upfield and out-runs the cornerback with the assignment on James, denies the tackle from the safety at the 2 yard-line, and walks into the endzone for the score.
So he's generally a hands-catcher, occasionally will settle for a body-catch. Shows adequate straight-line speed with the power to gain yards after contact. Oh, and he can adjust well to give his quarterback a target when the pressure is in his face, especially in clutch situations. Sounds pretty good so far.
What about blocking?
As a Steelers TE, the job description lists blocking before catching. This means that any TE who can't block, can't play for the Steelers.
This is Penn State vs. Boston College in the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl. Not an NFL-caliber opponent, no doubt about that (Boston College ultimately lost because their kicker missed an extra point), but this was Penn State's primetime stage of the season. They line up with the RB to Hackenburg's right, and James is in-line to the left. Run play, the line moves the defense down to the right, James included. What is impressive is that James is effectively blocking the Defensive End, and sustains the block well enough for the RB to get past the DE and into the second level.
Next, James is lined up as a fullback to the left, in front of Hackenburg, shotgun. Boston College shows blitz, and after the snap James comes across the back of the line to pick up a rushing DE to Hackburg's right. He carries the DE around Hackenburg and is able to fight against the rip technique and shows great balance as he keeps the DE in front of him even as the DE tries to cut back and use James's momentum against him. Hackenburg gets the pass out and makes a long completion across the field to his receiver on the sideline.
The rest of the video showcases James's catching. The end is worth a watch as James runs over the DB for an extra four yards or so, making the first down on a 3rd and 15. Similar to Heath and his knack for running over anything on the field with a heartbeat.
To recap, James shows capability in run blocking as well as pass blocking, major plus there. He also has the strength to easily block a Boston College DE (as to how strong they are compared to NFL talent is uncertain), and on top of it all James is the polar opposite of a diva. He does regular charity work, is a team-first player, and is a good-ol' Pennsylvania guy. He was also a wrestling star in high school, something that could help in blocking technique.
With Heath still under contract and locked in as the #1 TE, James would have at least a year to learn from one of the best all-around TEs in the league without needing to shoulder the load of a #1 in his first year. Should James be available when the Steelers make their selection in the second half of the 3rd round, he should be given serious consideration by his potential alone. Hopefully, the sky is the limit for James. Despite him declaring early for the draft, and despite his limited production on a team fighting through heavy turmoil, one thing is certain: James is a future #1 TE, not a "chess piece."